Responsible Planning and Reproductive Health*

 Miriam Defensor-Santiago**

 

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I. The Primacy of Conscience in Catholic Theology

Reproductive Health bills have been passed by the majority of Catholic countries, particularly by Catholic developing countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Other countries include Italy, Poland, Paraguay, Portugal, and Spain. When the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), now known as the UN Population Fund, profiled 48 Catholic countries, only six countries did not have a reproductive health law.  The Philippines is one of them.

In our country, the Catholic Church is the only major religion that opposes the RH bill.  Other major Christian churches have officially endorsed the RH bill, and in fact have published learned treatises explaining their position.  They are:

  • Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthood, 2007
  • National Council of Churches in the Philippines, 2009
  • Iglesia ni Cristo, 2010
  • Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, 2011

The position of these Christian churches is supported by the most authoritative body of Islamic clerics in the Philippines, the Assembly of Darul-Iftah of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.  These Islamic clerics constitute the top-ranking ulama who are deemed to have the authority to issue opinions on matters facing Islam and Muslims.  In 2003, they issued a fatwah or religious ruling called “Call to Greatness.”  It gives Muslim couples a free choice on whether to practice family planning, particularly child spacing.

Further, the RH bill is supported by a large majority of Filipinos in the country, as shown by certain nationwide surveys.  In October 2008, Social Weather Stations reported that 71 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the RH bill.  In October 2010, Pulse Asia likewise reported that 69 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the RH bill.

Vatican Council II and the Revolution in Moral Theology

Despite these surveys, certain Catholics, notably certain bishops, seem poised to fight to the death against the RH bill.  To understand why Catholics are so divided on this issue, and why there is such fierce antipathy, we must go back to the Second Vatican Council, the greatest of the councils held by the Catholic Church.  A Vatican council is an ecumenical council, meaning that it includes the whole Christian world, or the universal Church.  The decisions of an ecumenical council are considered authoritative.

Vatican II, which was held from 1962 to 1965, immediately unleashed a tidal wave of change.  It is now viewed as the most tumultuous decade in the whole modern history of the Church.  In the words of an eminent Catholic historian: “So many spiritual and religious landmarks were suddenly swept away that the average Catholic was left in a state of complete bewilderment.”[1]

The central issue of Vatican II was authority.  Before Vatican II, the typical Catholic accepted the authoritarian structure of the Church “as a dictate of divine revelation.”[2] This author’s generation was still very young at that time.  It was a generation that was taught that the Pope was a kind of superhuman potentate whose every word was a command coming from a supernatural authority.  The autocratic procedures of the Church were positively medieval.

However, with Vatican II, the seeds of a democratic revolution were sown.  It emphasized that the Church is primarily the whole people of God.  It called for dialogue between all members of the Church.  It asserted that the Pope and bishops are collegial.  It also called for the establishment of senates among the priests, and of pastoral councils that include the laity.

With authority as the central issue, the Church reached a state of extreme tension when Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae.  An encyclical is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Catholic Church.  Humanae Vitae condemned the use of artificial methods of contraception, including the pill.  Notably, the Pope did not act collegially with the bishops in issuing his encyclical.

The current problem of authority in the Church is rooted in a conflict between two theologies:

  1. Traditional theology, which still sees the Church as a superstate governed by an absolute monarch, whose aim is to impose the maximum amount of conformity.
  2. Progressive theology, which sees the Church as, above all, a fellowship of spiritual communities held together in essentials by their recognition of papal primacy.[3]

In the pre-Vatican II Church, the independence of the individual conscience was kept to a minimum.  In the past, the task of the layman was simply to obey the directives of bishops and priests.  However, in the post-Vatican II Church, there is now a mood of questioning.  Many Filipino Catholics, as Philippine surveys show, are no longer willing to obey the Church blindly.  “In a few years the climate in the Church changed so drastically that few bishops dared to express a hard line on Pope Paul’s birth control encyclical.  Most of them followed a generally permissive policy.”[4]

The divide between pre-Vatican II theology and post-Vatican II theology is mirrored in the RH debate among Catholic Filipinos.  Theology means the branch of knowledge that deals with Christian theistic religion.  It also means the organized body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God; in other words, divinity.

Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has been divided into two schools of thought in theology and in ecclesiology.  The two camps in theology are:

  1. The classicist or traditional Catholics on the one hand; and
  2. The historically conditioned or progressive Catholics on the other hand.

The two schools of thoughts on ecclesiology, meaning the branch of knowledge that deals with the Christian Church, are:

  1. Pre-Vatican II ecclesiology, which stresses the constitutional and hierarchical aspects of the Church; and
  2. Post-Vatican II progressive ecclesiology, which understands the Church as the whole People of God, always in need of renewal and reform.

This division into two schools of thought in theology and in ecclesiology represents a crisis of authority within the Catholic Church.  This crisis is represented as a transition, and thus has a certain implication.  In the words of a Catholic historian:

One way of looking at the current crisis of authority is to see it as the travails of a Church still trying to make the transition from the classicist to a historically conscious worldview.  The classicist mentality viewed the Church as moving through history, but more or less unaffected by history.  The historically conscious point of view, however, acknowledged how much institutions, governing precepts, and basic ideas about religion and morality are shaped by history, and therefore how relative they are.[5]

The post-Vatican II period has seen a revolution in moral theology in the Catholic Church due to the following factors:

  • The acceptance of the historical dimension.
  • The profound shift of emphasis on the Church not only as a hierarchical institution, but also as a sacrament, as people of God, and as servants.
  • The adoption by Vatican II of an ecumenical point of view, which now considers the experience, reflection, and wisdom of the other Christian churches.

Vatican II emphasizes the nature of the Church as an eschatological, very imperfect, and unfinished reality.  Eschatology is the branch of theology that deals with the four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.  In the past, Catholics viewed certain moral doctrines as immutable. Today however, many Catholics now accept that so-called immutable moral doctrines should be legitimately re-examined.

One relevant shift in moral theology concerns the principle of proportionalism, which is a new way of looking at actions that cause a double effect, one good and one bad.  According to the theory of proportionalism, a person does not sin in causing the bad effect if there was a proportionate reason.  The basis for this theory is that there is no sin if the person’s intention was aimed at a good effect and not at the bad effect.  Thus, very few actions could be labeled as intrinsically evil.  Certainly the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill is not an intrinsic evil.

Another shift involves the identity of the priest, including the bishop. Today, being a priest really means:

  • The person of the priest is no longer sacred.  There is no longer a strict division between the sacred and the profane.
  •  The treatment of priests and bishops as a special caste in society is no longer observed.  The Church does not consist of the priests and bishops alone.  The Church consists of the whole faith community.  Catholicism is no longer an affair of the person who happened to be born a Catholic, but an affair of the human being who is personally committed.
  • The priest is not a special person just because he performs strictly cultic tasks such as presiding at the Eucharist and administering the sacraments.

With these recent developments in the identity of the priest, one historian was moved to comment: “It is no wonder then that many priests suffer from a sense of confusion about their role.”[6]

 

The Encyclical Humanae Vitae

The Catholic opposition to the RH bill is based on the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae issued by Pope Paul VI.  The Latin title literally means “Of Human Life,” but it is more popularly translated as “On the Regulation of Birth.”  This encyclical[7] was the result of a Special Papal Commission established by Pope John XXIII and concluded during the term of Pope Paul VI.  The commission submitted two reports: the majority report, and the minority report.  The majority report proposed that contraception should no longer be condemned.  The minority report urged the Pope to continue to condemn contraception.

Paradoxically, Pope Paul VI decided in favor of the minority view.  His unusual decision shook the Catholic world, and that is the reason why the Catholics in this country are so intensely divided over the RH bill.

After Pope Paul VI rejected the majority report, many Catholics were no longer ready to give blind obedience to his decree.  It is fair to say that no moral issue in the twentieth century impacted so profoundly on the discipline of moral theology.  As a result of the contretemps and the succeeding controversy, Catholics now raise such questions on how conscience is to be sought, the response due to the ordinary magisterium or teaching function of the Pope and bishops, and the meaning of the guidelines of the Holy Spirit.

Catholic theologians, and even some Episcopal conferences, voiced opposition to the Humanae Vitae encyclical, or at least took positions that were less than enthusiastic in their support[8].  Surveys in the United States, for example, have indicated that the overwhelming majority (more than 80%) of Catholics of childbearing age do not, in fact, observe the encyclical’s teachings.

On the one hand, the controversial encyclical adopted the minority report which condemns artificial contraception, based on the following arguments:

  • The constant and perennial teaching of the Church.
  • The natural law asserting that certain acts and generative processes are in some way especially inviolable, precisely because they are generative.  Contraception is evil because it changes an act, which is naturally oriented to procreation, into an act which is oriented to the mutual benefit of the spouses.

On the other hand, the encyclical rejected the majority report, which supports artificial contraception, based on the following arguments:

  • Traditional teaching fails to recognize the evolutionary character of that teaching.  For example, the official Church has changed its teaching in such matters as religious liberty and usury. [9]  A change in that traditional teaching would not necessarily undermine the moral teaching authority of the Church.  Such a change is to be seen, rather, as a step toward a more mature comprehension of the whole doctrine of the Church.
  • The natural-law theory of those who support the traditional teaching has been proved to be erroneous.  Because of this mentality, many advances in medical science were prohibited for a time, and the same was true of other areas of scientific experimentation.  The conjugal act must be viewed not as an isolated reality but in a larger context of human love, family life, education, etc.  This is called the principle of totality.  Sexuality is not ordered only to procreation.  Sacred Scripture says not only: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), but also: “they become one flesh” (2:24), portraying the partner as another self (2:18).

This article shall emphasize the most categorical support for artificial contraception in the majority opinion:

In some cases intercourse can be required as a manifestation of self-giving love, directed to the good of the other person or of the community, while at the same time a new life cannot be received.  This is neither egocentricity nor hedonism, but a legitimate communication of persons through gestures proper to beings composed of body and soul with sexual powers.[10]

The whole controversy over the encyclical is painful and disturbing to a Catholic.  But it has also aroused the ordinary Catholic to be much more aware of her own personal responsibility.  It has made the Catholic realize that the Church hierarchy does not have all the answers.  It has forced her to think about the role of individual conscience.

The teaching of the Catholic Church on contraception is one of the important reasons why the absolute authority of the Church has grown weaker over the years.  The RH Act is a result of the deepened sense of history among Catholics.  Many Catholics are now more aware that Church authorities have made wrong decisions in the past.  To the mind of this author, those errors show that certain teachings should only be relative to their own times, and not permanent for all times.  The author humbly appeals to Church authorities to emphasize strong leadership on moral issues such as war and peace, poverty, and corruption in government, instead of a non-issue like the RH Act.

Humanae Vitae defends the rhythm method.  Thus, it rests its argument on the physiological structure of the act.  However, certain contemporary theologians insist that the basic criterion for the meaning of human actions is the total person, and not some isolated aspect of the person.

This author humbly submits that the reason for an exclusive rhythm method given in Humanae Vitae was too strongly biological.  It is likewise this author’s submission that Humanae Vitae has opened a disconnect with Vatican II, which allowed for a wider basis for evaluating the morality of such a human act, namely, “the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love.”[11]

A Reformulation of Catholic Doctrine

After Vatican Council II, Catholic doctrines began to be reformulated under the recent historical theology.  According to a Church historian, the guiding principles of this new historical theology are:

  • The inadequacy of every era to define truth for future eras.
  •  The traditional view of revelation as the transmission of definite fixed concepts was replaced by the idea of revelation as a personal self-disclosure by which God encounters the total person and communicates with him in a historical dialogue.
  • Therefore, no formula of faith can exhaust the truth.  It can be exchanged for another formula more meaningful to the contemporary mind.
  • Every formulation of a divine mystery is only the beginning, never the terminus.
  •  A theory of the development of dogma which emphasizes the social, historical, and non-conceptual forces impinging on this process. [12]

On the basis of these principles, Catholic doctrines have been reformulated.  This paper shall take an overview of this process.  One of the first to reformulate Catholic doctrine was a famous book entitled A New Catechism, and subtitled Catholic Faith for Adults.  It was originally published in 1966, but later revised in 1970, under the general responsibility of the Dutch hierarchy.  It became an international bestseller.

This so-called Dutch Catechism contained a section on Family Planning.  It noted that there was a clear development in the late 1960s, both within and outside the Church, toward the use of several methods in regulating births.  The Dutch Catechism said:

There is now a growing sense of the independent human value of sexuality.  Sexuality and fertility are seen more clearly as values which are combined in the one totality of life, rather than as factors simply arranged in the relationship of means to an end. . . .

Are all methods of regulation of births of equal value to the Christian conscience?  The council gave no answer to this question.  It does, however, call on married people to ask themselves conscientiously whether the practices in question do, or fail to do, full justice to the great personal values which should be expressed in sexual intercourse and in the whole of modern life. . . . The last word lies with the conscience, not with the doctor or with the confessor.  But reverence for life undoubtedly demands that no practices be chosen which could be harmful to health for the affective life. (Emphasis added) [13]

Nearly two decades later, in 1986, an Oxford University chaplain took note of the then raging debate on family planning after Vatican Council II.  He wrote:

The resolution of this dilemma between the care for the family and responsible parenthood, on the one hand, and the sustaining love, on the other, seems to be found in contraception.  But as everyone knows, the teaching of the Catholic Church forbids the use of artificial contraceptives . . . There seems to be an impasse at this point . . . .  It may be, therefore, that a positive attitude, marked by purity of heart, could help most to resolve the impasse. [14]

By 1994, a widely-hailed masterpiece, the book entitled Catholicism, stated:

The birth control question, once a sharply divisive issue in the Catholic Church, is no longer a matter of intense discussion among the theologians.  But it retains its importance as a paradigm of the 20th century debates concerning the nature of Catholic morality and the limits of Catholic teaching authority.

What is really the issue here, therefore, is not birth control in this generic sense but contraception, i.e., the intentional placing of a material obstacle to the conception of a child, e.g., a contraceptive pill, an intrauterine device, contraceptive foam, or a condom.

One side argues that contraception by such artificial means is always wrong. This remains the official teaching of the Church today. However, the other side argues that contraception may be not only legitimate under certain circumstances but even mandatory.  This side speaks in terms of “responsible parenthood. . . .” [15]

Liberation Theology

Liberation theology is a theory, originating among Latin American theologians, which interprets liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as an anticipation of eschatological salvation.  Liberation theology is a species of progressive theology, which is based on the following principles:

  • The Church, not just the hierarchy, is a mystery, or a sacrament.
  • The Church, not just the hierarchy, is the whole People of God.
  • The whole People of God participates in the mission of Christ, and not just in the mission of the hierarchy.
  • The mission of the Church includes service to those in need, and not just the preaching of the Gospel or the celebration of the sacraments.

Liberation theology is a part of post-Vatican II ecclesiology, which emphasizes the nature of the Church as an earthly community of human beings who have a mission in and for the world that includes the struggle on behalf of justice, peace, and human rights.

The appearance of liberation theology has been called “one of the most significant developments of the last several decades.”[16] It is called “a new way of doing theology.”  Classical theology is aimed at a deeper understanding of faith. Conversely, liberation theology aims to transform the world, following the famous dictum of Karl Marx that the task of philosophy is not to understand the world, but to change the world.

Classical theology seemed removed from day-to-day experience. In contrast, liberation theology has grown out of the experience of certain Catholics with the harsh reality of the miserable poor.  Classical theology interpreted Jesus’ message of the kingdom as a guide to personal morality.  Liberation theology sees Jesus’ message as, above all, a call to struggle against the social forces of oppression.  Liberation theology believes that the Kingdom of God is partially realized when social justice and love are advanced in society.  When we take a step toward social justice and love, we take one further step toward the final consummation of the Kingdom of God.

It is the author’s view that the struggle for an RH bill to protect the health and quality of life of the mother and child, in the context of unspeakable poverty, is part of liberation theology.  It emphasizes that the Church’s existence is not for itself, but for others.

According to the principal theologian of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez, the Church should be a place of liberation where there is a break from an unjust social order.[17]  This author submits that, in the Philippines, the Church must take a clear stand against social injustice.  In all humility, this author echoes the call of liberation theology: the first step in abolishing injustice is to recognize how much the Church itself is tied to the unjust system that oppresses the very poor.  RH is available to the rich; why should it not be made available to the very poor?

Catholic support for RH is a call to the major themes of liberation theology in a developing country like the Philippines, namely:

  • The injustices visited on the Filipino people by neocolonialism and imperialism.
  •  Reinterpretation of salvation to include every form of servitude; and
  • The Kingdom of God as beginning in this world, in this country, the Philippines, in this time, now.

In the light of the Filipino experience of the poor, we should take a profoundly historical approach to God.  The self-revelation of God and the Filipino’s human response is an ongoing historical process.  The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not an “unmoved mover,” but rather a God whose very essence consists of love.  The RH bill is an enterprise in social justice and in love for the poor.

In 1986, the Vatican made a positive critique of liberation theology by issuing the document entitled Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.  According to the Instruction, the supreme principle of the Church’s social doctrine is Jesus’ great commandment of love.  Christian love, when applied, may take various forms, in accord with the changing circumstances of history.

We now understand that, as compassionate disciples of the Lord, the Church exercises a special option for the poor, and shows them a loving preference.  The compassion and love of the Church must extend toward the poor of whatever kind – to the infant in danger of being aborted and, particularly, to the poverty-stricken Filipino mother denied the basic information about her own reproductive health.

The Primacy of Individual Conscience

In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical letter entitled Dignitatis Humanae, also known as Declaration on Religious Freedom.  In Section 3, par. 4, he wrote:

Man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience.  In all his activity, a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life.   It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience.  Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. [18]  (Emphasis added.)

In 1967, the same Pope Paul VI issued another encyclical entitled Populorum Progressio, also known as On the Development of Peoples.  In Section 37, he wrote:

It is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong.  In all this they must follow the demands of their own conscience enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted, and sustained by confidence in Him. [19]  (Emphasis added.)

In 1993, Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical entitled Veritatis Splendor, also known as The Splendor of Truth.  In Section 64, he wrote:

The authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians.  This is so not only because freedom of conscience is never freedom “from” the truth, but always and only freedom “in” the truth, but also because the Magisterium does not bring to the Christian conscience truths which are extraneous to it; rather, it brings to light the truths which it ought already to possess, developing them from the starting point of the primordial act of faith.  The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in some difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it. [20]  (Emphasis added.)

Against these encyclicals on freedom of conscience, the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, based on a minority report of the papal commission, strikes a discordant note.  It declared as erroneous the principle of totality, under which contraception could be considered morally legitimate, in the context of the totality of a fruitful married life.  Instead, the encyclical declares:

The Church calling human beings back to the observance of the norm of the natural law, as interpreted by constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.[21]

Humanae Vitae by itself has drawn a great divide between Catholics.  It has stirred up a storm, thus:

The negative reaction of many theologians, moralists, and non-moralists alike, was vigorous and widespread.  Bishops’ conferences around the world accepted the encyclical as authoritative teaching.  However, some of these conferences drew attention, for example, to the primacy of conscience, the need to be understanding and forgiving, and the judgment that Catholics who sincerely cannot follow the encyclical’s teaching are not thereby separated from the love of God.  Such themes were sounded by the bishops of Belgium, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries. [22]  (Emphasis added.)

Of all the bishops who supported the primacy of individual conscience, it was the Scandinavian bishops who put it best, thus:

No one, including the Church can absolve anyone from the obligation to follow his (or her) conscience. . . . If someone for weighty and well considered reasons cannot become convinced of the argumentation of the encyclical, it has always been conceded that he (or she) is allowed to have a different view from that presented in a non-infallible statement of the Church.  No one should be considered a bad Catholic because he (or she) is of such a dissenting opinion.

The 1971 statement made by the U.S. Sacred Congregation for the Clergy over the signature of its cardinal also declares that:

Conscience is inviolable and no person is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his (or her) conscience, as the moral tradition of the Church attests.  Thus, in pastoral practice priests must not be too quick to assume either complete innocence or moral guilt in the persons they counsel.  One must recognize persons who are “honestly trying to lead a good Christian life.”  There must be confidence “in the mercy of God and the forgiving power of Christ.” [23] (Emphasis added.)

The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought took note of the progress of liberal progressive Catholic thinking by analyzing the major modern encyclicals and reaching the following conclusion:

The Catholic Church, in its official pronouncements at least, continues today to affirm that natural family planning and sexual abstinence are the only morally acceptable means of controlling births.

What has become the key issue for Catholic thought in the matter of birth control, therefore, is not the intended ends sought by proponents of artificial birth control, but the morally legitimate means to the admittedly good ends that birth control advocates claim to seek and the human values that will be lost or distorted in using morally illegitimate means.

There seems to be several major concerns behind the continued opposition of Catholic social teaching to the practice of artificial means of birth control, be those means mechanical (condoms, IUDs, diaphragms, cervical caps), chemical (spermicidal agents, the “pill”), or surgical (sterilization, abortion).  Those concerns focus on the dignity of man and woman, the well-being of children and families, and God’s role in the creation of new life.  More cynical or suspicious views of Catholic social teaching would also see a fear and contempt for sex on the part of celibate clerics and a desire by those same celibates to maintain their power in the church and their control over the laity.  Whatever merit such suspicious views may have, they are not necessary to account for the continued opposition of the official teachers of the Roman Catholic Church to artificial contraception. [24]

The book Christ Among Us, which has been described as America’s most popular guide to modern Catholicism, describes the ongoing process of reformulating Catholic doctrine:
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